What Are Ragas in Indian Classical Music?

“What are ragas?” is a natural question for anyone who has been captivated by the soaring melodies of Indian classical music. Ragas, the mystical frameworks that hold classical Indian music’s rich melodies and profound emotional depth, contribute significantly to the music’s long-lasting appeal. Here, we’ll look at the complexity of ragas, including their structure, significance, and the emotions they evoke.

What are Ragas 2

What are Ragas?

Ragas are intricate musical compositions in Indian classical music, serving as the foundational structures for improvisation and performance. These melodic frameworks are designed to evoke specific emotions and moods, creating a profound connection between the musician, the audience, and the divine. Rooted in ancient Indian musical theory, ragas encompass a set of rules governing pitch, rhythm, and tonal ornamentation, allowing for infinite possibilities of expression.

Ragas vs Scales

Both ragas and scales are musical structures, but their concepts and uses vary. While Western scales are defined by a specific sequence of notes with fixed intervals, Indian classical ragas are complex melodic frameworks with intricate rules for ascending (Arohana) and descending (Avarohana) sequences, ornamentations, and melodic phrases. Ragas are deeply rooted in the cultural and emotional contexts of Indian classical music, often associated with specific times of the day, seasons, or emotions, and they provide a comprehensive blueprint for improvisation.

Origins and Evolution of Ragas

A. Historical Roots:

Ragas have deep historical roots, with mentions dating back to the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian treatise on performing arts. Over centuries, they evolved as a result of influences from various cultural and regional elements. The evolution of ragas is a testament to the rich musical heritage of India.

B. Development in North and South India:

The development of ragas took distinct paths in North and South India. In Hindustani classical music, which thrives in the northern regions, ragas often display Persian and Central Asian influences. Meanwhile, in the southern realms where Carnatic classical music reigns, ragas maintain a more indigenous and Dravidian flavour.

Anatomy of Ragas

A. Swara – The Foundation:

The soul of a raga lies in its swaras or musical notes. A raga typically features a specific arrangement of the seven basic swaras – Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni. These swaras form the core structure upon which the raga is built.

B. Arohana and Avarohana: Ascending and Descending Paths:

The unique melodic ascent (Arohana) and descent (Avarohana) define the path a raga takes. Understanding the Arohana and Avarohana is crucial to grasping a raga’s structure. Take the Raga Kafi; its ascending notes include Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’, while the descending notes include Sa’ Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa.

C. Pakad – The DNA of a Raga:

Distinctive phrases, known as pakad, are the signature elements that distinguish one raga from another. Take, for instance, Raga Bhupali, with its characteristic pakad (Sa Re Ga Re Sa Dha Sa Re Ga), which encapsulates the essence of this uplifting raga.

D. Thaat and Jaati – Classification and Structure:

Ragas are classified into thaats based on their scales and jaatis based on the number of notes they contain. They provide a framework for understanding the classification and structure of ragas. For instance, Raga Yaman belongs to the Kalyan thaat and is classified as a sampurna (complete) raga.

Classification and Types of Ragas

The Classification System of Ragas

Ragas are classified into various groups based on different criteria, such as the time of day they are performed, their melodic structure, and the emotions they evoke. This classification system provides a logical framework for organising and understanding the diverse range of ragas.

The Different Types of Ragas

There are several types of ragas, each with its own distinct character and purpose. Some ragas are associated with specific seasons, while others are performed during particular times of the day. Each type of raga offers a different musical experience, catering to a wide range of emotions and moods.

Learning and practicing Ragas

Traditional Methods of Learning Ragas

Learning ragas in Indian classical music follows a time-honoured tradition of guru-shishya parampara (teacher-disciple relationship). Students learn directly from a guru, starting with the basics and gradually progressing to more complex ragas. This traditional method involves oral transmission, where the guru imparts their knowledge through demonstration, repetition, and personalised guidance. It is a journey that requires dedication, patience, and a strong bond between the teacher and student.

Accompaniment and Improvisation in Ragas

Accompaniment and improvisation play a vital role in the performance of ragas. In Indian classical music, it is common to have multiple musicians playing together, with one leading on the main instrument or vocals and others providing accompaniment. These accompanying musicians respond to the lead artist, enhancing the beauty and complexity of the raga. Improvisation, known as “taan,” allows musicians to showcase their creativity within the framework of the raga, adding their unique flair to the performance.

Practical Application of Ragas

A. Raga in Performance:

Experiencing a raga in a live performance is where its true magic unfolds. The legendary Ravi Shankar, through his sitar renditions, masterfully demonstrated the nuances of ragas, captivating audiences worldwide.

B. Emotion and Mood:

Raga Bihag, with its vivacious and celebratory nature, is often chosen for joyful occasions. The maestro Ustad Amir Khan, on the other hand, has eloquently presented Raga Darbari Kanada, with its deep and contemplative mood.

C. Time of Day and Seasonal Significance:

Ragas are often associated with specific times and seasons. The maestros like Pandit Jasraj have beautifully rendered Raga Shuddha Nat in the early morning, creating an atmosphere of serenity.

Examples of Prominent Ragas

A. Raga Bhairav:

Raga Bhairav is a highly revered raga, often considered the queen of all ragas. It is known for its devotional and meditative qualities, evoking a sense of peace and tranquility. It is often performed in the early morning hours and holds a special significance in Indian musical traditions, including devotional music and bhajans.

  • Arohana : Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa’
  • Avarohana : Sa’ Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi : Dha
  • Samavadi : Re
  • Pakad : Ga Ma Dha Dha Pa, Ga Ma Re Re Sa
  • Chalan : Sa Ga Ma Pa Dha Dha Pa Ma Ga Ma Re Sa
  • Example : Take a listen to the legendary Lata Mangeshkar’s soul-stirring rendition of Raga Bhairavi in the devotional song “Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum.”

B. Raga Yaman:

Raga Yaman is one of the most loved and frequently performed ragas in Indian classical music. It is known for its serene and romantic character, often associated with the late evening or early night. With its captivating melodic phrases and expressive ornamentation, Raga Yaman has found its way into various music genres beyond classical, such as Bollywood music.

  • Arohana : Ni R Ga Ma# Dha Ni Sa (Ma is teevr)
  • Avarohana : Sa’ Ni Dha Pa Ma# Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi : Ga
  • Samavadi : Ni
  • Pakad : ni-Re-Ga-/Re-Ga/ni-Re-Sa/Pa-Ma#-Ga-Re/ni-Re-Sa’ (Ma is teevr)
  • Example: Experience the brilliance of Raga Yaman through the sitar rendition by Pandit Ravi Shankar in the album “Three Ragas.”

C. Raga Todi:

Raga Todi is a captivating and intense raga that invokes a range of emotions. It is characterised by its intricate melodic patterns and evokes a sense of yearning and longing. Raga Todi is often performed in the early morning hours and is known for its ability to transport listeners to a state of deep introspection and contemplation.

  • Arohana : Sa Re Ga Ma# Dha Pa, Ma# Dha Ni Sa’ (Hash is Teevr and Underscore is Komal )
  • Avarohana : Sa’ Ni Dha Pa, Ma# Ga Re Ga Re Sa
  • Vadi : Dha
  • Samavadi : Ga
  • Pakad : Dha Pa Ma# Ga, Re Ga Re Sa
  • Example: Delve into the meditative realm of Raga Todi with the vocal rendition by Ustad Rashid Khan in the album “Mausam.”

Instruments that Breathe Life into Ragas:

A. Sitar: The Iconic Melodic Companion

The sitar, with its resonant strings and distinctive twang, is synonymous with classical Indian music. Maestros like Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar have elevated the sitar to new heights, showcasing its versatility in expressing the nuances of various ragas.

B. Tabla: The Rhythmic Heartbeat

The tabla, a pair of hand-played drums, adds a rhythmic heartbeat to ragas. Artists like Zakir Hussain and Ustad Allarakha Khan have become synonymous with the tabla, bringing precision and flair to classical performances.

Influence and Adaptation of Ragas in Other Musical Traditions

Ragas in Bollywood Music

Ragas have significantly influenced the vibrant world of Bollywood music. Indian film composers have skillfully incorporated various ragas into their compositions, adding depth and emotion to the storytelling. For example, you can listen to these songs:

  1. “Ghar Se Nikalte Hi” – Papa Kehte Hai (1996)
  2. “Jaago, Mohan Pyare Jaago” – Jagte Raho (1956)
  3. Duniya Na Bhaye Mohe – Basant Bahar (1956)
Ghar se nikalte hi

Ragas in Fusion and World Music

While ragas are deeply rooted in classical traditions, their influence extends to diverse genres. Musicians like L. Shankar and Shakti have seamlessly blended ragas with Western elements, creating a fusion that resonates with a global audience.


So now you know what ragas are, and as we conclude our exploration of ragas in Indian classical music, it becomes evident that these melodic marvels are not merely musical compositions but profound expressions of emotion, culture, and spirituality. Whether you’re a seasoned musician or an enthusiastic listener, immersing yourself in the world of ragas opens doors to a rich and diverse musical heritage that continues to captivate hearts across the globe


How many ragas are there in Indian classical music?

India’s classical music system was once thought to include 4,840 Raags, but due to the difficulties in documenting this system of music, many Raags were lost permanently, and just a few hundred remain now.

Are ragas exclusive to Hindustani or Carnatic classical music?

While Hindustani and Carnatic traditions share common elements, each has its own unique ragas, styles, and performance techniques. Exploring both traditions provides a holistic understanding of the depth and diversity within Indian classical music.

What makes a Raag different from a Scale?

Both ragas and scales are musical structures, but their concepts and uses vary. While Western scales are defined by a specific sequence of notes with fixed intervals, Indian classical ragas are complex melodic frameworks with intricate rules for ascending (Arohana) and descending (Avarohana) sequences, ornamentations, and melodic phrases.

What is the purpose of ragas in Indian classical music?

The purpose of ragas in Indian classical music is to evoke specific emotions and create a unique atmosphere or mood. Ragas serve as a framework for improvisation and composition, allowing musicians to express and explore a wide range of feelings and sentiments through their melodic structures.

How are ragas classified in Indian classical music?

Ragas are classified based on various criteria, such as time of day, season, and mood. They are organised into different categories called thaat, which represent the parent scale of the ragas. Each raga has its own distinct tonal structure, specific melodic phrases, and ornamentation patterns that differentiate it from others.

Can anyone learn to perform ragas?

While mastering ragas requires dedication and guidance, the journey of learning Indian classical music is open to anyone with a passion for the art. Renowned institutions and gurus worldwide offer opportunities for enthusiasts to delve into the intricacies of ragas.

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